A divine magnificence

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125 years after construction began, St. John the Divine is unfinished, but still regal


  • The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in 2014. Photo: Paulo JC Nogueira, via Wikimedia Commons

Aside maybe from Columbia University, the best-known landmark in Morningside Heights is surely the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. It’s one of the largest Episcopal cathedrals in the world and one of the city’s newest landmarks.

Even to the “un-churched,” the cathedral is known for its concerts, its annual ceremonial blessings of animals and of bicycles, and its social outreach programs such as a Sunday soup kitchen. And the church is still not finished.

The cathedral had its genesis in 1828, when the Episcopal bishop of New York, John Henry Hobart, discussed the feasibility of building a church with city Mayor Philip Hone, according to the church’s website. The project would be decades in the making, with a site for the nascent cathedral selected only in 1887, when Bishop Henry Codman Potter of the Episcopal Diocese called for a cathedral that would rival the Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in size and in grandeur. The cornerstone was laid in 1892. The first services were held in 1899, as work on the site continued.

Construction was stopped during both world wars, but has otherwise continued. Lest anyone erroneously think that the Diocese is dragging its feet, Commissioner Wellington Chen of the Landmarks Preservation Commission pointed out that, historically, it takes about 300 years to build great cathedrals.

The cathedral and its surrounding buildings and gardens form an 11.3-acre complex known as the close. In addition to the cathedral itself, the site’s other buildings include the Choir School (built 1912-13), St. Faith’s House (1909-11), the Synod House (1912-14), the Deanery, the Bishop’s House, and the original building of the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum.

The buildings are also home to some notable monuments and artworks. The choir parapet has a series of sculptures of the world’s spiritual leaders since the birth of Christianity. Among them are likenesses of William Shakespeare, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony and Mahatma Gandhi.

On the wall of the American Poets’ Corner are the names of some of the country’s best-known poets and writers, such as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Langston Hughes, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Emma Lazarus and others.

As far as art is concerned, the cathedral houses the Barberini Life of Christ tapestries, designed by baroque master Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and produced in Rome before 1644 and 1656. The name comes from Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII, in whose tapestry workshop the 12-panel series was produced. (Ten of the tapestries are on view in the cathedral’s chapels through June 25.)

The church has always been a center for music, both organ recitals and music by larger groups. Its New Year’s Eve concerts draw people from throughout the city. Jazz great Duke Ellington performed several sacred concerts here, one of which was recorded and issued as an album in 1968. Eclectic “world music” saxophonist Paul Winter has often performed at St. John the Divine, and is scheduled to perform his 37th annual Winter Solstice concerts this December.

Among the most-beloved activities at St. John’s is the Blessing of the Animals, held in October to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis. While other churches also host similar blessings, most such ceremonies mainly attract dog and cat owners. At St. John the Divine, cows, sheep, llamas, hawks a and donkeys get blessings.

Since 1999, another mass benediction, the Blessing of the Bikes, takes place at St. John’s. It’s held the day before the Five Boro Bike Tour, with bicycle riders attending from as far away as Albany before taking part in the big ride.

In February, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the cathedral as a landmark.

“The Cathedral is among the most famous church buildings in the world and is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year who want to experience this 125-year-old masterpiece and complex with its varied and unique architectural styles,” Commission Chair Meenakshi Srinvasan said. “I’m very proud that this commission has advanced the successful designation of both the cathedral building and six historic buildings in the Close complex.”

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